How has Marketing’s concept of the consumer changed since the emergence of the discipline at the start of the 20th century and how have these changes informed marketing practices?
Marketing’s concept of the consumer has radically changed since the start of the 20th century, presenting a general shift from the passive to active consumer, depicted as complex and knowledgeable. Through the 20th century these changes have informed marketing practises to target and manage the consumer in more innovative and sophisticated ways. However there is much debate as to whether the consumer is still being manipulated and exploited through current marketing practises.
Marketing prior to the start of the 20th century saw the consumer as passive and easily manipulated my marketing techniques and practises. Consumers had no control over production or consumption; they simply sat back, fixed in identity and lifestyle “didn’t select lifestyle, just lived a life, didn’t move around, stayed in same place of birth, had one fixed identity” (Outka 2009: 8). Consumers didn’t explore or experiment with consumption through identity or lifestyle; it simply wasn’t a part of day to day life and was instead something done as a necessity. Williams (1976) suggests the term consumption was that of “to use up, to waste, to exhaust” (Featherstone 1991: 21). Consumption was simply a ‘needs must’ with the consumption of non-durables such as food and clothes. The moment of purchase marked the end of sale. There was no relationship with the consumer or further connection or interaction.
However, marketing’s concept of the consumer changed considerably at the beginning of the 20th Century seeing a shift from the passive to active consumer; marking the emergence of a dominant consumer culture. Consumers were increasingly identified as newly empowered, becoming unmanageable and complex, causing marketers to lose control. Miller’s (1997) understanding of the consumer is “as a psychosocially complex and mutable collection of needs, wants and desires” (Pridmore & Zwick 2009: 269). This is a very different image from the passive consumer of pre 20th century.
Early 20th century saw a large increase in mass production of goods as well as mass consumption, both being characteristic of Fordism. Cole’s (1981) suggests “demand is an essential element in transformation of the economy” (Fine 2002: 161). With the growth of mass production came a large availability of goods ‘available for everyone and anyone’ transforming the economy and forming a consumer culture. The latter part of the 20th century saw innovation in technology, as part of globalization, providing the consumer with different avenues of consumption through shopping online and mail order. The access to credit cards meant less restriction on borrowing money therefore higher levels of consumption. Consumers became tied into brands with discounts, membership and point’s cards. This then led to further consumption with a connection forming the idea that a “relationship of selling being securing, developing and maintaining long term relationships with profitable consumers” (Moncrief & Marshall 2004: 14). This long term relationship being significant to marketing as well as producing brand loyalty. Marketing’s view of the changed consumers’ needs and desires are seen as part of their want to buy products and commodities to form a communicative display of lifestyle. Consumers buy into lifestyles which they can live through brands and products: Kim et al (2002) suggests “products are bought to express consumer personality, social status, or affiliation or to fulfil the need for change or novelty” (Lury 1996: 114). This suggests consumption must fulfil the need of consumers; being that products should express identity, personality and social status.
An opposing view could be argued that although marketing’s concept of the consumer has changed since the start of the 20th century, the consumer could in fact have always been active, but has only been identified recently by theorists. Marketing pre 20th century hadn’t fully evolved though had been around long before. Therefore this could mean marketing during the 20th Century focused far more on the analysis of the consumer and consumer behaviour. Also the increasing innovation in marketing practises could have caused higher consumption, positioning the consumer into a role were they are deemed to be more active than in the past. Also development in marketing practises could have informed a change in consumption rather than marketing adapting to change in consumer behaviour.
Alternatively, theorists such as Zwick (2008) have explored marketing’s notion of a general shift from passive to active which subsequently changed marketing practices. More sophisticated marketing techniques are used to control, manipulate and fulfil a consumer society. Kotler (1999) proposed the marketing communication mix, otherwise known as the four way promotional mix (Pickton & Broderick 2005), which encompasses the four marketing practices: public relations, advertising, sales promotions and personal selling.
Promotional culture is used to target the unpredictable consumer of the 20th century by attempting to draw them into consumption. Promotional culture uses the ‘push and pull’ strategy of taking the product to the consumer (push) and then letting the consumer come to you (pull). This links to the marketing tool ‘hook’, that pulls the audience in, “people hearing the story identify with or support belief” (Lakhani 2008: 52). With the right consumer in place, marketing can play to their emotions and deliver an experience. With regard to the creation of lifestyle through consumption advertising sends a message to the receiver that by buying this product they can gain a desired lifestyle, personality and social status.
With regard to advertising, marketers have to pre-empt choices or encourage the consumer. This links to Kotler’s (1972) view that marketing had to take on the character of ‘applied behavioural science’ (Zwick et al 2008: 170). Marketing has to form a psychological understanding of the consumer in order to pre-empt them. Advertising encourages the consumer by manipulating them into consumption through desire: “Advertising is able to exploit by attaching images of romance, desire and beauty to a mundane day to day goods
” (Featherstone 1991: 14). Products become re-enchanted through advertising with the attachment of imagery. Such is the power of ideological manipulation in perfume advertising. An example is the power of ideological manipulation in perfume advertising. Dior’s celebrity endorsement advertising campaigns, since the 1980’s, have included super models and actresses. The recent ‘Miss Dior ‘ campaign features Natalie Portman, depicting a lifestyle of beauty and sophistication. The ideology of this is used to manipulate the audience into believing the perfume creates a luxurious and romantic lifestyle. This is evidence of a shift from Fordism to post-Fordism, where luxury goods and high-living lifestyle is desired, showing a break away from mass production. Consumers didn’t want the same mass produced products that everyone else had; they wanted something individual and of high standard. “Consumers want the best in terms of quality and value” (Baverstock et al 1996: 12). Advertising uses techniques to plays to these needs. This is evident in Volvo adverts that wrap high prices with a story of safety (Lakhani 2008: 9). Everyone wants to know they are safe so pay premium prices because the ad tells them they will be safe.
However, McCracken (1988) suggests marketing conveys a lifestyle of the consumer which is simply the desires of marketers in order to sell products.“Consumers are presumed to lead a certain life which conforms to the desires of marketers to sell particular constellations of commodities” (Clarke et al 2003: 212). Consumers may not in fact conform to the presumed lifestyle marketing positions them in, causing ineffective advertising messages. Myer (1986) takes a critical view on differing lifestyle conveyed through advertising, suggesting that it causes ageism, sexism and racism. She describes consumption as verging on cannibalism, that women are more vulnerable to men due to social expectations and upbringing (Lury 1996). She suggests when women consume they are subject to the male gaze. Also youth are said be to most highly targeted as they are often known to express personality traits through consumption.
It is debated that marketing practises such as advertising could be seen to position consumers once again as passive through the manipulation of advertising. Marxist criticises promotional culture as they suggest it positions production as active and consumption as passive. Implying advertising creates false needs. Although Arvidsson (2004) suggests that “advertising is assumed to have lost most of its capacity to persuade the consumer” (Lury 2004: 38). This suggests that although marketing’s concept of the consumer has changed, informed marketing practises state that the consumer is still too advanced and complex, causing them to read over advertising messages. Although it can be argued that advertising provides a message for the consumer to interpret and then complete. This ties in with Wilmshurst & Mackay (1999) who reject the idea that the consumers are made passive through advertising. They propose that “advertising is an essential facility to consumer freedom of choice” (Curran & Morley 2006: 152). Advertising enables the consumer to interpret and complete meaning. They can take what they want from the advert and have the freedom of choice as to whether they want the product, as opposed to being manipulated into buying it. This relates to the use and gratification model where consumers take an active role in choosing and interpreting media to meet personal needs to fulfil gratification. Marketing wanted to be able to manage consumers and gain knowledge and understanding, by tapping into their freedom of choice. Marketing’s changed concept of the consumer meant they had to try and keep up with consumers’ ever-changing needs and desires. They recognised a shift from producing goods in order to make consumers want them, to producing goods consumers will want.
Therefore towards the end of the 20th century marketing practises enabled marketers to discover and explore what marketing called the ‘complex’ consumer. Marketing used sophisticated modes of surveillance, database research and monitoring providing expert knowledge of exactly what their audience wanted and using it in all four areas of the marketing mix. There is a debate as to whether marketing responds to consumer needs or aims to shape themKotler (1999) suggests that ‘customer satisfaction’ was the mean aim of modern marketing above maximizing output. Therefore marketing had to channel efforts into identifying and meeting the needs of the consumer (Zwick et al 2008). Surveillance and database marketing provides marketers with knowledge of the consumer which they can use to maximise consumer satisfaction. This shows a shift from marketing’s use of advertising, which could be said to attempt to shape the audience, to surveillance which responds to consumer needs.
Database marketing is used to collect and store information/data about the consumer in response to their ever-changing identity, needs and tastes in a postmodern time. Arvidsson (2004) suggests “how it is possible to capture, store and retrieve physical, social and cultural mobility of social life” (Zwick & Knott 2009: 226). This helps marketing to understand and gain knowledge about the consumers’ needs and behavioural patterns. The rise in surveillance and database research was due to innovation in technology. Previously data was gathered and kept as hard copy, reaching nowhere near the capacity of data which can be collected today. Data provides marketers with expert knowledge, through the recoding of consumers’ characteristics by tapping into their consciousness to produce dematerialized ‘data doubles’ in the form of codes. “Individuals are being reduced to their measurable characteristics” (Clarke et al 2003: 210). The categories of characteristics make it easier for marketers to deal with large amounts of data and provide a ‘score’ of each consumer. Consumers leave digital traces everywhere; converting them into digital assemblages (Zwick & Knott 2009). Digital traces are left all over the internet, leaving a long trail of consumer data for marketers. The scoring process enables marketing to evaluate the consumer’s economic value which is constantly updated and recorded. Marketing is not interested in what the data means, just what they can do with it. The information is presented to the client as a ‘model’ – “the ranking of thousands of individuals according to a model we prepare for the client” (Zwick & Knott 2009: 233). Within the model individual scores capture an overall view and understanding to target the correct audience.
The whole premise of database marketing and surveillance is the collection of information as a means of production, showing more evidence of a post-Fordism economy; “energy intensive to an information intensive operation and production” (Zwick & Knott 2009: 227). Information being the key to marketing knowledge about the consumer. Database marketing and surveillance also shows a shift from Fordism to post-Fordism through social communication of face to face consumer research, and knowledge gained through the gathering of data.
This implies that surveillance is essential as an informed marketing practise with the necessity for marketing to gain information about the consumer. Producing what some might suggest is a closer relationship between producer and consumer. Although Elmer (2004) suggests dataveillance provides a separation: “dataveillance work maintains the conceptual separation between the sphere of consumption and production” (Zwick & Knott 2009: 224). This is due to the fact surveillance is normally done without the consumers knowledge, meaning marketing gains a huge amount of personal information without the consumer even being aware of it. Therefore producer and consumer are not working together.
Many theorists believe power and control operate through the use of surveillance and database marketing. Poster (1990) refers to database marketing as “like a market super-panopticon” (Pridmore & Zwick 2009: 272), demonstrating a panoptic style of control. Rather like the structure of the panoptic model where the audience isn’t aware of when they are being watched. This can be said to exploit the consumer by gaining refined knowledge, producing economic value, while pretending the consumer is ‘free’. On the other hand Arvidsson (2005) would suggest the consumer is ‘free’: “Through the mobility of everyday life into input for the more diffuse and expanded systems of production” (Zwick & Knott 2009: 237). This suggests consumers are mobile and free, therefore not restricted or oppressed by database marketing and surveillance, but are able to enhance and expand production, which will in turn benefit the consumer.
It can be argued that consumers have an input into the product through market research, leading to empowering the consumer and catering to their active role. This is especially evident in face to face market research and promotions which involve two symmetric communications; dialogue between sender and the audience (Pickton & Broderick 2005). This provides a rich form of first-hand information about the consumer, which they offer freely. Marketing gains quantitative and qualitative data to help form a deeper understanding of the consumer in the form of focus groups, ethnography and questionnaires. There are often feedback sheets provided after events, brand experiences or use of products to help marketing gain knowledge about the consumers’ likes and dislikes.
Turow (2006) forms a critical approach suggesting that surveillance and database marketing can be seen to make consumers paranoid, through its control. Paranoia then leads to the audience becoming more aware of giving out details, making them more private. This in turn means an exclusion of data and loss of a broad spectrum of data. Also in relation to face to face market research consumers can lie, providing answers they deem expectable. Or through word of mouth (WOM) products can gain good or bad publicity within a target group, which travels fast.
In the late 20th Century purchasing became a form of achieving social status and prestige, as mentioned above; showing a shift away from Fordism to post-Fordism with high-end goods and living standards becoming more important than mass production. Post-Fordism presented a new era of ‘just in time’ manufacturing, economic knowledge and the ‘flexible’ worker. The growth in consumption and shift to post-Fordism also indicates some concerns. Bauman suggests (1990) consumption is an individual process which provides and relies on a large amount of human satisfaction (Lury 1996). This suggests that exchange and consumption have become the main form of human satisfaction and is an individual activity. Consumers could be seen to become self-absorbed by the creation of prestige and social status.
Although Kozinet (2002) indicates postmodern consumers (known as post consumers) are interested in contextual life experience; they wish to experiment and are not interested in material value (Firat & Dholakia 2006). This is in contrast to the previous view of an emphasis on material value. The sense of consumers wanting to create experience and the ability to experiment through consumption is something that informed marketing practises. Experience is given to consumers through marketing practises such as PR stunts and promotions, which aim to create an impact and experience. Promotion events often present the essence of a brand in which the event creates a real life experience for the consumer. “Public events coincide with private behaviour of consumers to create a shift from a production driven to a consumption driven culture” (Turow & Mcallister 2009: 28). This ties in with the previously mentioned idea that marketing’s main aim is to satisfy the audience, rather than focusing on profit of production. Again evidence of a shift from Fordism to post Fordism – from mass production to a consumer driven culture. Experience being what consumers desire, rather than just mass production of the same readymade goods.
Brands create experiences for the consumer. The American brand Abercrombie and Fitch don’t advertise; instead they create an in store experience using employees to represent the brand. Consumers become ‘brand ambassadors’ who help create and convey the brand image. Not only is this free advertising, it also gets the brand known, creating brand loyalty. This is where the power of brand logos is so effective. “We are living in a phantasmagoria of corporate logos and brand images, logos give a moment of identification, showing commitment to the brand and focusing on own self interest” (Turow & Macallister 2009: 207). People see and recognise the Nike ‘swoosh’ all over the world; the consumer is living the brand. Some theorists would suggest this kind of brand manipulation no longer satisfies the consumer. Within the marketing realm consumers can actively pick and choose what they wish to be immersed in. This is in contrast to early 20th century consumers; depicted as passive with one fixed identity and lifestyle, compared to the current consumer society.
The idea of consumers living through brands, and consumers gaining life experience relates to the idea of co-creation. Marketers believe consumers are smart and sophisticated “no longer media literate but market literate” (Lury 2004: 43); they have gained knowledge and know exactly what they want. The market literate consumer has become more and more active to the point where they are seen to join with the consumer in a partnership and co-creation: “consumers are no longer end users they are producers” (Firat & Dholakia 2006: 138). Marketers need help from the consumer due to their complex and unpredictable nature; they know exactly what they want and demand an active role. “Instead of mundane exchange now a buzzing vibrant communication hive” (Zwick et al 2008: 172). This communication provides expert knowledge for marketers and helps them work side by side with the active consumer. This is again evidence of a shift from Fordism to post Fordism, with the joined of production and consumption and consumers ability to co-produce making new high standard goods as opposed to mass production. Consumers, instead of sitting back, take a more central role, having more control over production, shaping their experiences and lives. Consumers adopt a producer role, empowering them and forming a close relationship between producer and consumer. Consumers are no longer just seen as research objects, but they are seen to join with producers and marketers as part of a postmodern culture “transforming the audience from consumer to post consumer” (Firat & Dholakia 2006: 144). Post consumers know what they want and through co-creation are given the opportunity to transform commodities and put their own personal stamp on purchases.
The Swedish company IKEA is known for its ‘build yourself’ attitude, with furniture bought to build. Their slogan is ‘affordable solutions for better living’. Better living solutions; easy for anyone to create. A brand like IKEA is evidence of Poster’s (1990) view that “postmodernism seeks better balance between the good of economic productivity and the richness of creative consumer literacy and life experience” (Firat & Dholakia 2006: 134). IKEA provides good productivity at a reasonable price and provides the consumer with a creative experience. The active consumer can co-create all household goods leading to empowerment.
BUILD A BEAR workshop shows co-creation but in the form of consumer paying premium prices for a product which they created. The consumer can personalise a bear with a choice of clothing, accessories and shoes. They can shop under ‘latest fashion’ or ‘my occasion’. The goal being to create a personalised Teddy Bear; their mission statement being, “to bring Teddy Bears to life” (website). BUILD A BEAR workshop realizes the “benefit of providing consumers with places for playful production” (Zwick et al 2008: 174).
Another example of this is Dell, producing computers which can be personally designed online; colour, keyboard and size can be chosen. Consumers like to feel special and that they have something no one else has; their own unique design. McAlexander et al (2002) suggests “marketing is no longer a provider but a partner” (Firat & Dholakia 2006: 141). Both can work hand-in-hand to produce the best product.
Co-creation is regarded as a relatively new concept, although McDonalds has long relied on the consumers’ interaction. McDonalds is said to turn consumers into waitresses and cleaners, while ATM allows everyone to work (Zwick et al 2008). Companies are keen to extract unpaid labour from their audience in new and innovate ways.
The use of co-creation online created a huge phenomenon of online interactive sites. Facebook provides consumers with a platform, ‘a webpage’, which they can produce and personalise. Facebook is also a platform for surveillance and targeted marketing. Recently personalised advertising was shown on Facebook, targeting the user. This form of sophisticated marketing practise goes straight to the target consumer. This can also be seen on Amazon where consumer tastes and preferences are stored: ‘you may also like this’. This is the idea of co-training online (Lury 2004). Through consumption online the audience is informing marketers of their desires and needs. This helps marketing build a relationship with consumers.
Ebay is an example of co-creation where the consumer becomes empowered through buying, selling, commenting, watching and bidding. Robinson & Halle (2002) describe the site as “all in the consumers’ hands, the alternative site for empowerment and trusting the consumer” (Firat & Dholakia 2006: 139). The consumer appears to have complete control.
However it is also debated that co-creation exploits the consumer. Some theorists believe co-creation immerses the consumer ‘in surplus labour’, meaning low cost but high profit margins. These activities are then recoded to be enjoyable and pleasurable, hiding the fact that marketing is still in control. Turow & McAllister (2009) suggest “consumer exploitation has replaced labour exploitation as a central problem in modern society” (Turow & McAllister 2009: 340). Even though consumers may volunteer to co-create they are still paying premium prices for their labour. When they are not paying premium prices, such as online networking sites, they are still being exploited as the marketers profit from their labour. On the other hand as Levy (1959) states marketing’s primary challenge is to “respond to consumer changing needs and wants in the market” (Pridmore & Zwick 2009: 269). Therefore through co-creation marketers don’t have to keep up with consumers’ ever changing needs and wants as the consumers have become partners, helping to create the products. This empowers the consumer and makes use of their demand for an active role. This suggests everyone wins, consumers have exactly want they want and marketers gain profit.
In conclusion marketing’s concept of the consumer at the start of the 20th century has radically changed, seeing a general shift from the passive to active consumer. This change has informed marketing practises, Kotler (1972) suggesting marketing has become an ‘applied behavioural science’ (Zwick et al 2008: 170). Though marketing’s concept of the consumer at the start of the 20th century was complex and unmanageable, consumers were said to still be manipulated through advertising and exploited through a panoptic style of surveillance. Although this is debated by theorists who suggest advertising frees the consumer and doesn’t have the same capacity to persuade them. While Arvidsson (2005) implies that surveillance doesn’t restrict or oppress the consumer it simply expands and enhances product, benefiting both marketing and the consumer.
There is evidence of a gradual shift to a more and more active consumer with the relevantly recent idea of co creation, known as relationship marketing, creating a deep relationship with the consumer (Lury 2004: 36). This is evidence of marketing managing consumer relationships, rather than manipulating them. So when does production end and consumption beginRecently due to co-creation the audience is seen to both consume and produce at the same time; evidence that perhaps there is no line between production and consumption. Turow (2009) implies co-creation exploits consumers and immerses them in surplus labour. Although others suggest it empowers them and demonstrates the idea of the postmodernist society with the breaking down of corporation and marketplace; eroding relationship boundaries. Indeed recently consumption and production seem to go hand in hand, showing no end or beginning to either; presenting an even greater shift towards a more and more active consumer; a relationship which will continue to grow, change and shape the way in which marketing is practiced in the future.
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